Saved by crab blood

March 3rd, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

Here’s one of the more surreal corners of industrial medicine: crab blood donors. Apparently the best way of detecting some bacterial contamination is to add some crab blood extract to it, and see if it clots. So 250,00 crabs a year are scooped up and part-drained of blood, before being released with just enough blood left that most of them will survive the process.

To make it even odder: crab blood is blue.

[Thanks to Julien for pointing me at this bizarre micro-industry]

Increasing hedge fund bosses’ tax bills

February 27th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

I’m always pleased when campaigners about tax avoidance manage to find concrete examples of what they want changed. It takes a lot more knowledge and work, but is much more likely to have some impact in legislation.

So it’s great that 38 degrees have zoomed in hedge fund managers claiming their income as capital gains rather than wages. This not only gives them a lower tax rater, but makes it easier for them to claim numerous exemptions. The end result can be tax of just 12.7%.

Last week they released a report on the topic. It’s written by my friend Mike Lewis, and estimates the tax cost of this ‘loophole’ at £700 million per year.

38 degrees’ proposed solution is to explicitly treat payments to private equity employees as salary. That’s probably the right position for them to take — it’s a good change that might plausibly be implemented.

Personally, though, I’d prefer a much more radical change. It’s abhorrent to tax labour so much more highly than capital. This is something that brings out my inner socialist. The low rate of capital gains tax just shows that the system is rigged in favour of capitalists and against workers.

Military forensics with Bellingcat

February 26th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m an immense fan of Eliot Higgins’ work, reporting on conflicts by correlating publicly-available satellite images against youtube videos and social media. It’s stunning just how much you can find out, and how few people are doing so.

This report, also summarized in the Guardian, is a case in point.

They are trying to verify claims of Russian artillery firing over the border into Ukraine, last summer.

They use google maps to look at the craters left by shelling:

From a crater, you can tell roughly which direction the attack came. Doing this when you’re on the ground is fairly straightforward, and many soldiers are trained in “crater analysis”. Doing it from satellite photos is a bit shakier, but with 800+ craters on the photo, you can get some idea.

You take a crater image like this:

compare it to a model from a US military manual:

and decide that the gun was somewhere off to the north-east.

Do this with all the craters you can find, to give you an overall picture of the direction(s) the fire came from. Then trace the route back on google maps. With luck, you’ll find some trace of the firing positions on the map:

In this case, it turns out that the guns were fired from inside Russia. QED.

Some people have quibbled about the reliability of aerial-only impact analysis. And, looking at (roughly) the same images as Bellingcat, I can’t always see enough marks to agree with their analysis for every crater. The general pattern is compelling, though, as is the match between craters, tracks in the firing areas, and youtube videos. Overall, though, this is a far clearer analysis than anything else out there, either in the media or being reported by NGOs. And they are almost unique in including enough information that, if you want, you can repeat their process step by step and confirm their conclusions

Hunter S Thompson

February 20th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

It’s ten years to the day since Hunter S Thompson obliterated himself in the most American way, with a shotgun to the head.

Whenever I reread his books, I’m struck by how he was so much more than the crazed self-destructive hedonist of myth. He was constantly trying to understand his world, and above all to make sense of America. Even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is subtitled A savage journey to the heart of the American Dream. It’s a topic he keeps coming round to, especially in his diary of the ’72 presidential campaign which re-elected Nixon.

Above all, there’s a constant sense of dashed optimism, from someone who had seen the birth of a culture he believed in, then watched it be destroyed in infacy by the counter-revolution of a heartless mainstream. Here’s one of many passages where he laments that death:

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were here and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant….
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened….There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda….You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high—water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Surrealism lectures as podcast

February 12th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I’ve been enjoying this series of lectures on Surrealism, given by Dawn Ades at Oxford a few years back.

Among other things, it’s nice to have my fondness for surrealism validated by an Important Person. Because whenever I bring it up around Serious Art People, they tend to react with patronising disdain, much as though I’d just said ABBA were my favourite band.

Better, though, is the attention Ades gives to the surrealist journals, I love it when artists try to explain what they are doing, and it sounds like the surrealists did so more thoroughly and with less bullshit than just about any other art movement out there.

Petitions that made me laugh

February 10th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

A couple of petitions that are simultaneously hilarious and serious. First, to make tampons VAT-free by classifying them as essential items:

The Government taxes sanitary products but not crocodile steaks. If you value the functioning of those who menstruate at least as much as you enjoy your crocodile Friday then sign our petition and join our campaign

Then, there are a various petitions trying to prevent a planned Margaret Thatcher museum receiving any public money. It all feels a bit silly since nobody powerful is talking about using public funding to establish the museum. Still, prevention is better than cure, and this petition has the best approach — demanding that the museum have a section devoted to the paedophiles Thatcher worked with. “This will also help the waxwork industry who must by now have a large amount of public figures that they can no longer show

Psychological pricing beyond $9.99

February 8th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The psychology of pricing goes way further than just setting prices a few cents below a whole number.

Products that are recreational or luxurious benefit from rounded prices: Consumers were more inclined to buy a bottle of champagne when it was priced at $40.00 rather than at $39.72 or $40.28. However, for purchases that are utilitarian—a calculator, in this experiment—participants were more likely to buy at the higher non-rounded price.

Presumably we now associate non-round-number pricing with products competing on price. And that doesn’t mesh well with luxury goods, making them seem less rather than more desirable.

Real estate and shell companies in the New York Times

February 8th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

The New York Times has just turned out a long, worthy article on New York real estate owned through shell companies:

On the 74th floor of the Time Warner Center, Condominium 74B was purchased in 2010 for $15.65 million by a secretive entity called 25CC ST74B L.L.C. It traces to the family of Vitaly Malkin, a former Russian senator and banker who was barred from entering Canada because of suspected connections to organized crime.

Last fall, another shell company bought a condo down the hall for $21.4 million from a Greek businessman named Dimitrios Contominas, who was arrested a year ago as part of a corruption sweep in Greece.

This kind of story tends to leave me a bit confused. Isn’t it already a cliche that luxury New York (and London) real estate gets bought by dodgy businessmen and Russian oligarchs? I’m still glad it gets written, because sometimes the journalists will turn up something actually criminal, and the attention increases the chances of getting real estate sales subject to tighter “know your customer” rules. But I don’t really see why people outside the niche of corruption-tracking should care

getting hooked on mrjob

February 7th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

A lot of my ‘programming’ time is actually spent sniffing around various libraries and open-source projects, trying to figure out which will be helpful and which will leave me cursing the mistake of building anything on top of them. ‘Soft’ areas like documentation and community management tend to matter almost as much as the quality of the code itself.

So well done mrjob for not just having decent documentation, but trying to rope new users into improving it:

If you’re reading this, it’s probably your first contact with the library, which means you are in a great position to provide valuable feedback about our documentation. Let us know if anything is unclear or hard to understand.

[if you’re interested, mrjob is a library that streamlines writing Hadoop jobs in python, with a particular focus on Amazon Elastic MapReduce]

“Why I Am Not a Maker”

February 5th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

An absolutely on-point critique of the ideology of making things:

The cultural primacy of making, especially in tech culture—that it is intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.

Making is not a rebel movement, scrappy individuals going up against the system. While the shift might be from the corporate to the individual (supported, mind, by a different set of companies selling a different set of things), it mostly re-inscribes familiar values, in slightly different form: that artifacts are important, and people are not.

…and not to yield: Ulysses of the bond markets

February 4th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Dsquared posts on Crooked Timber, asks only Greeks to comment. Comments thread predictably explodes into erudite snark, notably Joshua W. Burton’s take on Tennyson’s Ulysses:

. . . Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer deal.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The hounding Euros; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the market, and the wrath
Of all the western banks, until I die.
It may be that the Gulf will buy us up:
It may be we shall touch the Cayman Isles
And see the great Onassis, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved oil and cargo; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of expatriate wealth,
Made weak by various new reporting regulations, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to borrow, and not to yield.

Forensic Architecture

February 3rd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Forensic Architecture is an excellent-sounding research group at Goldsmiths in London. They are trying to turn spatial data to political and legal ends:

When violence takes places within the city, architectural analysis is increasingly called upon as evidence in tribunals, international courts, and different political contexts.

Incredibly for an art-academic group, they are working with a level of rigor that lets them be taken seriously in international legal settings. They take moderately well-known issues such as drone strikes in Pakistam, and shed new light by concentrating on what they do to the built landscape:

Forensic Architecture has investigated several issues relating to the spatial mapping of drone warfare; for example, the geographical patterns of strikes in relationship to the kind of settlements (towns or villages) targeted and types of buildings targeted. Our aim was to explore what potential connections there might be between these spatial patterns and the numbers of casualties, especially civilian casualties.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

February 2nd, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

[cross-posted from Edgeryders]

This classic essay has come up in a few conversations I’ve been having recently. It was written in 1970 in the context of feminist organizations, but it’s still a painfully accurate description of what can go wrong when groups try to abolish formal structures.

I’m going to paste some of the key passages below. But I strongly recommend reading the whole thing. As well as being valuable in its own right, it’s a useful reminder that many of our aspirations are not new, and that there is a lot to be learned from the history of non-hierarchical groups.

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved.

As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.
For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized.

[In the absence of formal structures, decisions tend to be made by an elite of members with strong personal connections to one another.] So if one works full time or has a similar major commitment, it is usually impossible to join [the ‘elite’] simply because there are not enough hours left to go to all the meetings and cultivate the personal relationship necessary to have a voice in the decision-making. That is why formal structures of decision making are a boon to the overworked person. Having an established process for decision-making ensures that everyone can participate in it to some extent.

Once the movement no longer clings tenaciously to the ideology of “structurelessness,” it is free to develop those forms of organization best suited to its healthy functioning. This does not mean that we should go to the other extreme and blindly imitate the traditional forms of organization. But neither should we blindly reject them all. Some of the traditional techniques will prove useful, albeit not perfect; some will give us insights into what we should and should not do to obtain certain ends with minimal costs to the individuals in the movement.
— from Jo Freeman (Joreen), “The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Total closing tax haven subsidiaries

February 1st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Total, the French oil major, is closing its subsidiaries in tax havens. At least, that’s how the PR runs. So far there is nothing official on the website, and their statement to Le Monde is anything other than definitive. ‘Tax haven’ can mean anything you want it to, as can closing a ‘certain numnber’ of subsidiaries.

Still, it’s a step in the right direction, and PR moves can inadvertantly lead to real changes. If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to see the list of subsidiaries which they promise to reveal in March.

Inequality: blame assortative mating and O-Ring production

January 31st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

 

Tyler Cowen blames inequality on the tendency of the smart and rich to hang around with one another:

a common set of factors is driving inequality: equality of opportunity,  assortative mating, O-ring production, increases in the demand for talent driven by the leveraging of talent through technology. The forces are similar and so are the results, the money elite, the monetary elite, the power elite.

 

Save the world: stop writing C

January 31st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Francis wants to stop building insecure software. As a start, he is pledging not to use C/C++ for new projects. Choosing a different language for your work may not inevitably lead to safe code, but at least it’ll reduce the number of gratuitous buffer overflows we are geneating everywhere. And, well, you have to start somewhere.

[I’ve not signed, because I can imagine a few circumstances where I might want to write C/C++. But I’ll continue to avoid them wherever possible]

Work on supertramp

January 29th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Can you keep a few dozen brilliant-but-disorganized geeks pointed in the right direction and collaborating productively? Supertramp is a very loose network of geeks and activists, linking up people who are working on mapping out political and economic power, and we’re looking for a cat herder to keep us in line.

The basic idea is this. My work on the Investigative Dashboard mirrors what Miguel Paz has done at Poderopedia, Friedrich Lindenberg at Grano or Chris Taggart at Open Corporates. We, and many others, have long been collaborating through code-sharing, and hackathons, and frenzied coding sessions at conferences. But we still spend too much time reinventing the wheel, and too little pushing the boundaries of what we can achieve. The hope is that by adding a thin veneer of co-ordination on top of that, we’ll be able to substantially increase our impact. Please, if you like the idea, think about applying.

Links without context

January 28th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Mississippi schools aren’t allowed to teach how to use a condom. One has resorted to an inspired workaround using socks.

Booking fees for A-list music acts. Supposedly you can get Coolio for <$30,000.

Demographic Intuition

January 27th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Most of us have pretty bad intuition about the relative populations of the countries of the world. I certainly do, despite my many attempts to improve.

Paul has found this map, which scales the world according to population:


My own approach has been lots of time staring at Wikipedia’s various listings of countries by population.

That’s a start, but it still leaves out the dimension of time. Why are our intuitions about population so inaccurate? Ignorance is part of the reason, but part is just being out of date. Even historical eurocentrism makes a bit more sense, when you consider that, fifty years ago, Europe had about thrice the population of Africa. Africa took the population lead some time this century, and by 2050 will have perhaps thee times the population of Europe.

So it wouldn’t have been so irrational if your grandparents gave France more attention than Nigeria. But general knowledge takes a while to catch up — a lot of it is inhaled in school, using books that might easily be a decade out-of-date, and we hold onto it for the future decades of our life.

So take a good look at wikipedia’s List of countries by past and future population. The 1950s figures, to my mind, correlate quite well with the size countries have in our popular imagination. China and India at the top, the US and Russia understood to be huge, then countries like Brazil, Japan and Pakistan, before reaching the larger European states.

The current figures seem far less familiar. Bangladesh is more populous than Russia, Ethiopia has twice the population of Spain, and so on. The estimates for the future get more alien the further the get. I’ve spent a fair while looking at the 2050 figures. While I can understand them in my head, I’m so conditioned to focus on Europe that I can’t come to grips with its demographic insignificance.

D^2 on Greece

January 26th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

D-Squared expects Syriza to play chicken with the ECB — “present them with a fait accompli on the debt default, and gamble that they will not have the nerve to take measures which might have the effect of forcing Greece out of the Euro“. But Europe has had several years to get used to the threat of a Greek default, so will be able to contain it relatively easily. So Syriza either wins concessions or gets booted out of the Euro, but neither approach hurts the rest of Europe that deeply.